Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bible Commentary - Leviticus 24

In this chapter, the LORD establishes the priestly tasks for the Tent of Meeting and a blasphemer of the Name is killed.

First Aaron is commanded to keep the golden lampstand burning, which is inside the tabernacle but outside of the veil that divides the holy place from the most holy place.  This is repeated from Ex 27:20-21.

The second part is more interesting, because we are finally told the regulations of the "table of showbread", which is the golden table that was positioned opposite of the golden lampstand.  Pretty simply, the priest is expected to bake 12 loaves of bread every Sabbath and set them on the table.  At the next Sabbath, when baking a new set of loaves, the priests are allowed to eat the old loaves which they are replacing.  That's what v. 9 is talking about when it says Aaron and his sons can eat the bread.

What is the bread supposed to represent?  I would say it is predominantly sacrificial, because of the usage of frankincense (v. 7).  Frankincense is one of the components of the ceremonial incense, so I think this establishes an association between the continually burning incense and the continually offered bread.  Earlier in the chapter we were told of the continually burning oil in the lampstand, which casts light into the holy place.  There are three symbols, then, in the holy place: light, bread and the smell or incense.  Light and bread are complements of each other, because they face each other in the tabernacle.

Outside of the tabernacle are the daily animal and grain sacrifices are dawn and dusk, and those sacrifices are atoning because they involve the shedding of blood.  The sacrifices inside the tabernacle do not involve shedding blood, so in my opinion they are not related to atonement or the removal of guilt and sin.  Rather, I would suggest that the rituals within the tabernacle are more like worship or fellowship, because the atonement of guilt is performed outside.  At first glance, one might associate the bread of the presence with a grain offering, but I think that conflates their purpose.  The grain offering is related to the sacrificial system, which is a means of atonement.  The bread of the presence is probably intended to be more like "a meal with God" vis-a-vis Ex 24:11, hence why it is called the bread of the presence.

Light is a very important symbol in the OT, first established all the way back in Genesis 1:3.  The very first spoken word is the creation of light itself, and it is from light that the rest of creation flowed.  In Ex 10:22-23, darkness covered the land of Egypt, but there was light in the dwellings of the Hebrews.  In Ex 13:21, the LORD's presence in the pillar of fire gave the Israelites light to guide them at night.  Light is related to guidance and protection, and it is also critical for farming, because without light, no plant can grow.  Light is the source of all life on the earth (well, except for deep-sea vent dwellers, but that's not biblically significant).

However, all of that light came from God.  Why are the Israelites required to steward and maintain the light within the tabernacle?  I think there are a lot of answers to that, whether it's because the Israelites are supposed to remind themselves about God's light or as a reminder to God that we need light or something like that.  Maybe it's an act of emulation, that God created light in the beginning, and now these people are creating their own small light as an imitation of the greater light, just as man is created in the image of God.  Generally, the language in the bible calls the things of the tabernacle "memorials", like the bread of the presence is a memorial (v. 7).  This would suggest an aspect of remembrance.  But what are we to remember?  The acts of creation?  The preservation from death and the plagues of Egypt?  The freedom from slavery and ascent to the promised land?  The covenant itself?  Probably some or all of these.

Light, bread and incense are expanded on later in the OT and NT, so I will also encourage my readers to keep these thoughts in mind as we progress further, and I will note the recurrence of these symbols when we see them later.  As you will see, the later texts will help shed some light on their meaning (haha, get it?  Shed some light?  It's a .. uh... it's a joke because... ok, I'll stop).

Lastly, this chapter has a story about "the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian".  Already from this first sentence we can see the beginning of trouble, because this is not a pure-blooded Israelite, which runs contrary to the principle of separation.  That probably sounds racist, but we should note that race almost always correlates with religion in the OT, so when it says Egyptian, you should read that as "not a follower of the LORD".  That is, he probably didn't teach his son to follow the LORD either.  If the Israelites show they are reluctant to follow the LORD, we can be sure that Egyptians will be even less inclined towards obeying the LORD (consider Pharaoh's response, "who is the LORD that I should obey him?").  This passage is less of a racial conflict and more of a religious conflict, as the son proves that he is not going to follow the laws of the covenant.  We can "read between the lines" and see that this conflict is generally maintained upon racial lines, however, which positions this half-Israeli half-Egyptian at the fault line between the two systems.

Also, because Egyptians were the oppressors of the Israelites, consider two factors: 1) there is almost certainly a broad resentment and hostility against Egyptians amongst the Israelite people, 2) there is a possibility that this Egyptian man married the Israelite woman from a position of supremacy or strength.  Not to say that the woman was forced into it, but as an Israelite woman in Egypt, she would have had many disadvantages in life and in society which marrying an Egyptian would (partially) solve.  There are many types of soft pressure that Egyptians could use to coerce Israelites into arrangements like this.  We are never told anything specific, but I think it's definitely an undertone in this story that sets the context for what is happening.

This struggle is further exemplified by what we see next, "the Israelite woman's son and a man of Israel struggled with each other in the camp".  So not only is this "Israelite woman's son" a hybrid of sorts, he is getting into a conflict with other Israelites.  These are related points, of course, because of the aforementioned resentment and hostility towards Egyptians is likely contributing in some fashion towards the "struggle" we observe here.

In blaspheming the name (of the LORD) and cursing, this half-Egyptian draws the ire of the ruling authorities, because he broke one of the ten commandments, which eventually leads to his death.  This is the second short vignette where we are told of a person or group of people who are punished for violating some part of the law.  The first was the death of Nadab and Abihu back in Lev 10 when they did not follow the regulations of the tabernacle with respect to offering incense.  There are two more I can think of in the future that we will see (Numbers 15, violation of the Sabbath, Numbers 16, Korah's rebellion), which I will discuss when we reach them, and I only mention them now to demonstrate that this is a fairly consistent pattern in the Pentateuch.

All of these events are for the purpose of confirming the covenantal laws, that these laws must actually be upheld and that violators must be punished.  In the case of Nadab and Abihu, they were punished by God and killed by fire from "the presence of the LORD", but in this case, the Israelite woman's son is to be killed by the people.  This highlights the dual nature of the law, that it is enforced by both God and the people.  Another good example of this is Lev 20:4-5 where God says, in effect, if the people will not punish a man who offers his child as a sacrifice to Molech, then the LORD himself will punish that man.

In this case, the LORD tells the people to put their hands on the man's head, to transfer the guilt of his crime back to him, and then stone him to death (to avoid touching him and thereby transferring the guilt back to themselves).

In the middle of this is a restatement of the laws of personal injury that generally corresponds with the Ex 21. I don't know why it's placed here, other than perhaps as a veiled reference to the "struggle" between the two men.  Yet that's not the reason for the half-Egyptian's execution, so I guess I'm not sure.

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